Earliest Precursors of the One-Drop Rule (C15)



olly Gray was a fair-complexioned biracial woman from Hamilton County, Ohio. In November of 1829, she was tried for robbery and convicted due in part to the testimony of a Black witness for the prosecution.

She appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio on the grounds that she was White. Ohio statutes forbade Blacks from testifying against Whites, and yet she was convicted on Black testimony. Hence, she claimed, her conviction should be overturned.

Her lawyer argued that, despite Ms. Gray’s slight African ancestry, she looked more European than African. This meant that she was legally White by the rule of physical appearance in effect in Ohio at the time.

The prosecutor agreed that physical appearance was the only legal way to decide which side of the color line someone was on. But he argued that Ms. Gray, “appeared, upon inspection… to be of a shade of color between the mulatto and white.” He said that she was not quite light-skinned enough to be White. Legally, he insisted, she was Mulatto, not White. Had Ms. Gray looked completely European and not been “a shade of color” darker, the prosecution would have agreed to void her conviction.

The Ohio Supreme Court agreed that physical appearance was the only way of deciding. “We are unable to set out any other plain and obvious line or mark between the different races. Color alone is sufficient.” The problem was just where to draw the line.

After deliberation, the judge ruled, “We believe a man, of a race nearer white than a mulatto… should partake in the privileges of whites. We are of opinion that a party of such a blood is entitled to the privileges of whites. “Partly because we are unwilling to extend the disabilities of the statute further than its letter requires, and partly from the difficulty of defining and of ascertaining the degree of duskiness which renders a person liable to such disabilities.”

This case, Gray v. Ohio, 1831, marks an important historical watershed. It was the last appeals case in the free states where everyone agreed that one of the traditional rules (physical appearance, blood fraction, or association) would decide your “race.”

From then on, some form of one-drop rule of invisible Blackness would be argued, unsuccessfully at first, in most racial identity cases heard in the North and later in the upper South. Within a century, the one-drop rule of invisible Blackness would entirely supplant the rules of physical appearance, blood fraction, and association throughout the nation. How did this come about? Better yet, how did it start?

Anthropologically speaking, the notion of invisible Blackness–the idea that one can be a member of the U.S. Black endogamous group due to an undetectable trace of distant African ancestry–is a myth. In other words, the notion must have served some useful social purpose or it would not have spread throughout the nation and been preserved to this day. But tracing its origin is as difficult as uncovering the origin of any other popular idea.We can approach its origin from two directions: first working forwards in time from the Revolution and then working backwards from the Jim Crow era. Working forwards from the formation of the Republic, we know that as of 1830, the one-drop rule had not yet been argued in an appeals court anywhere in the United States.Furthermore, we know that the farther south you look in the early antebellum period, the less familiar the terrain becomes. South Carolina had an extraordinarily permeable color line. Alabama and Louisiana had two mildly endogamous color lines separating three groups. And Florida lacked any endogamous color line at all.Only the upper South and the North had an endogamous color line similar to today’s: impermeable, based on hypodescent, and supported by a shared sense of ethnic self-identity. So we must seek the birth of the one-drop rule around 1830 in the free states.

Working Backwards From the Jim Crow Era

Working backwards from the Jim Crow era, we know that the first state to legislate the one-drop rule of “racial” membership was 1910 Tennessee. But the record shows that state legislatures did not take it upon themselves to invent such a rule.Statutes deciding which side of the endogamous color line you were on merely confirmed rules that were already enforced as legal precedent. Appellate courts had made the ODR legal precedent since about 1890, long before legislatures made it statutory.Work further backwards, we find that the first time that an appellate court upheld the one-drop rule of invisible Blackness was in the criminal prosecution of a marriage between a White woman and a Black man in 1880 Texas.(The court found the couple not guilty on the grounds that she may possibly have had a drop of distant African ancestry, and so was not White in the legal sense.)Nevertheless appeals judges, like state legislators, seldom invent new rules for society. They chose among arguments presented at trial. And so, the origin of the one-drop rule as an idea in the public mind must be sought where the concept was first advocated in a courtroom, even though higher courts might have rejected it.The first time in U.S. history that a lawyer advocated the one-drop rule was in 1834 Ohio, in a school segregation case to which we return momentarily. But even legal arguments cannot be the origin of the idea. Few lawyers can afford to present arguments that clash with social sensibilities. They must have gotten the idea from the greater society in which they lived. The one-drop rule must have been in the air at that time (the 1830s) and in that place (the North).

Journals and Diaries From Colonial Times

We must seek the birth of the one-drop rule in popular culture: in journals and diaries, in literature and drama of the 1830s. Travelers’ accounts illuminate the society of the time. Each account inadvertently reveals how the writer’s mind worked.

Journals and diaries provide a glimpse of how people thought about “racial” membership back then.

Until the 1830s, such accounts invariably referred to “white” slaves in the American South. Before then, none used terms like “white-looking” slaves. But by 1840 travelers’ accounts had shifted to the modern form of expression.

That “white-looking” is the current form of expression is indisputable. With one exception, every textbook or monograph, published since the turn of the twentieth century refers to “white-looking” slaves.Few modern authors can bring themselves to state the obvious fact that many thousands of White people (by the usage of the time) were enslaved in the antebellum South. Today’s academic canon is that they were merely “white-looking” (whatever that means).[The exception is Lawrence Raymond Tenzer, The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War: A New Look at the Slavery Issue (Manahawkin NJ: Scholars’ Pub. House, 1997).]But such anachronistic backwards-projection of today’s ODR was not the case before 1830. John Ferdinand Dalziel Smyth who toured the South in the 1770s wrote about “female slaves who are now become white by their mixture.”Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville in 1788 reported a “white boy” in a Philadelphia school for Negro children. Dr. Jesse Torrey in 1817 wrote about “a decently dressed white man” who was also a slave.

In 1839, reverend Francis Hawley of Connecticut wrote, “It is so common for the female slaves to have white children, that little or nothing is ever said about it.” No account before 1830 has yet turned up that employs modern (“white-looking”) terminology.

The change in paradigm from “white” to “white-looking” apparently took less than a decade. In 1837, Captain Frederick Marryat wrote that “said boy is in a manner white, would be passed by and taken for a white man.”The following advertisements for runaways tell the same story. Take into account that the descriptions in these ads are the most accurate that the unhappy owners could produce. They wanted their valuable property found and returned, after all. 1. [$100 reward will be given for my man, Edmund Kenny. He has straight hair, and a complexion so white that it is believed a stranger would suppose there was no African blood in him. A short time since, he was in Norfolk with my boy Dick, and offered him for sale. He was apprehended but escaped under pretense of being a white man. — Anderson Bowles, The Richmond Whig, Va. Jan. 6, 1836.] 2. [$10 reward for the apprehension of William Dubberly, a slave belonging to the estate of Sacker Dubberly, deceased. He is about nineteen years old, quite white, and would not be readily taken for a slave. — John J. Lane, The Newbern Spectator, N.C., March 13, 1837.]3. [Runaway from the subscriber, a bright slave named Sam; light sandy hair, blue eyes, ruddy complexion. He is so white as to pass easily for a white man. — Edwin Peck, Mobile Ala., April 22, 1837.]4. [Runaway, a bright woman, named Julia, about twenty-five years old. She is white and very likely may attempt to pass for white. She is a good seamstress, dresses fine, and can read a little. $200 reward, if caught in any Free State and put into any good jail in Kentucky or Tennessee. — A.W. Johnson. The Republican Banner and The Nashville Whig, Tenn. July 14, 1840.]5. [Runaway from me, a woman named Fanny. She is as white as most white women; with straight light hair and blue eyes, and can pass herself for a white woman. She is very intelligent; can read and write, and so forge passes for herself. She is very pious, prays a good deal, and was, as supposed, contented and happy. I will give $500 for her delivery to me. — John Balch, Tuscaloosa Alabama, May 20, 1845.]6. [Runaway from the subscriber, a very bright boy, twenty-two years old, named Wash.He might pass himself for a white man, as he is very bright, has sandy hair, blue eyes, and a fine set of teeth. — George O. Ragland, The Chattanooga Gazette, Tenn. Oct. 5, 1852.]7. [$25 REWARD. Ranaway from the plantation of Madame Duplantier, a bright boy named Ned, about thirty-five years old; speaks French and English. He may try to pass himself for a white man, as he is of a very clear color, and has sandy hair. — The New Orleans Picayune, Sept. 2, 1846.]This last one is doubly ironic because the runaway slave’s owner, Madame Duplantier, was a member of the Coloured Creole slaveowning aristocracy, and quite dark herself.After 1840, with one class of exceptions, no slave was ever again reported as “white.” They merely “looked white” or “passed for white.” And so, judging by journals and diaries, the one-drop rule first arose in the United States between 1830 and 1840.[The class of exceptions was abolitionist political pamphlets, which bemoaned the enslavement of Whites as somehow worse than the enslavement of Blacks.]

Literature and Drama

The one-drop rule first appeared in popular literature inside novels and plays about “passing for white.” This is because the concept of “passing for white” is an inseparable aspect of the one-drop rule.(Cultures that lack a one-drop rule lack the concept of “passing for white.” The very notion of “passing for white” depends on acceptance of the ODR, and so it is unintelligible to New World inhabitants raised outside of the United States.)“Passing” literature refers to novels, plays, or short stories in which a European-looking character pretends to be a member of the White endogamous group but is “really” on the Black side of the color line.All three elements are essential: (1) Some African ancestry, (2) predominantly European appearance, and (3) pretense or concealment.Stories about European slaves were not uncommon, even before the Reformation. But unless the character actually has some recent African ancestry, such stories are not of interest here.Similarly, an African slave who wears a mask or otherwise disguises as European-looking in order escape captivity does not fall within our scope; only characters who really are genetically European.Finally, the tale of a European who is accepted without pretense or concealment as fully European, even though everyone around knows of the person’s publicly acknowledged African ancestry is not a tale of passing in this context.“Passing” literature exists only in markets that accept the ODR. Cultures where a European-looking person with an African-looking grandparent is considered legitimately White, lack passing literature because they lack the concept of invisible Blackness.The earliest fictional use of the “passing” concept was in the French novel Marie; ou, L’Esclavage aux États-Unis [Marie; or, Slavery in the United States] (Paris: 1835) by Gustave de Beaumont. It is apparently the first passing novel ever published. Its narrator, Ludovic, falls in love with the title character, who turns out to have a touch of African ancestry through her Louisiana Colored Creole grandparent. The novel describes the racial intolerance of the North with such lines as:“Public opinion, ordinarily so indulgent to fortune-seekers who conceal their names and previous lives, is pitiless in its search for proofs of African descent…. There is but one crime, of which the guilty bear everywhere the penalty and the infamy; it is that of belonging to a family reputed to be of color.—Though the color may be effaced, the stigma remains. It seems as if men could guess it, when they could no longer see it. There is no asylum so secret, no retreat so secure as to conceal it.”The novel is interesting because the author does not agree with his own characters. The characters are immersed in a society that brutally enforces the one-drop rule. The author, on the other hand, sees the notion to be an inexplicable Americanism.Marie’s characters are shown as struggling for acceptance, not as engaging in malicious pretense. The novel was written by a Frenchman and published in France for a French readership. Its tone is, “look at the bizarre customs of those strange Americans.”Nevertheless, Marie is important because it is the first literary indication that a unique and unprecedented social ideology, the one-drop rule, had recently arisen in the United States. That a Frenchman first recorded it in fiction is a curiosity.The first two American-written novels about passing are Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853) by William Wells Brown and The Garies and Their Friends (1857) by Frank J. Webb.William Wells Brown was a former slave and an established author who had published the autobiographical Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave in 1847. Frank J. Webb, a freeborn African-American, was a newcomer to the reading public.Clotel is about slavery. Its protagonist (Thomas Jefferson’s slave daughter) escapes captivity, passes for White in the North, but then returns to the South to rescue her own daughter and dies in the attempt. Most of the novel does not focus upon the pretense of Whiteness, but is instead a pastiche of slave tales culled from the author’s own experiences, hearsay, journalism, and other fiction.Clotel lacks the unity customary to novels and seems disjointed to the modern reader. Nevertheless, it is the first known piece of literature depicting a society that considers Blackness to be an intangible trait.It is the first to portray people (both Black and White) who believe that a European-looking person of undetectable African ancestry is a member of the Black “racial” group nonetheless. The book’s market success shows that most readers agreed.The Garies and Their Friends is about life in freedom in the North, not about slavery in the South. Although it abounds in sub-plots (more than are customary in most modern novels), it is more tightly written than Clotel.It focuses on passing by its title couple. Its sub-plots show different forms of passing (accidental, deliberate, ignorance, etc.). Although it came out four years after Clotel, most scholars today credit it with inventing the literary theme of passing.Clotel and The Garies and Their Friends are similar in that they were the first successful novels published by African-Americans, and yet they are almost universally ignored in Black studies departments today.This is because their ideology is repellent to modern African-Americans. None of the characters who engage in passing in these two novels feels any guilt or remorse for the act.Some (usually delicate Victorian females like Clotel herself) sincerely want to be accepted as White. Others (usually defiant self-sacrificing Victorian men) consider it a justified deceit upon an unjust society.Modern critics see the characters’ lack of guilt as a symptom of a “psychology of imitation and implied inferiority,” and that it reveals the authors’ “unconscious desire to be white” and “unabashed allegiance to Anglo-Saxon lineage.”According to M. Giulia Fabi, the characters’ lack of guilt “have had crippling repercussions on [the novels’] reception among scholars of African American literature to this day.”And so, judging by literature and drama, the one-drop rule first arose in the United states around 1835. Now let us look at court cases.

“Racial” Classification Court Cases

In May of 1834, Ohio residents Mr. and Mrs. Williams tried to enroll their five White-looking children in the District 6 public school. They were turned away because the law demanded racially segregated schools.Although the children’s mother was White, the father admitted to having an imperceptible trace of Negro ancestry. The Williams couple sued the school board in Williams v. School District, 1834 Ohio.The trial went to the heart of the issue. Were the Williams children members of the Black “racial” group because their father had slight African ancestry? Or were they White based upon the traditional rules: appearance, blood fraction, and association?The school board advocated a one-drop rule of invisible Blackness. The children’s records showed that they had African blood, they argued, and so they should be ruled to be Black even though they did not look it.The Williams family lawyer argued in favor of an appearance-based view of color line positioning. The children should be ruled White because, physically speaking, they “really were White,” even though their father was probably not.The judge ruled in favor of the rule of physical appearance. The children were White because they looked White. The court awarded damages to be paid to the Williams family and ordered the school board to admit their children.In fact, the decision was far from inevitable, and the case could easily have gone either way. The judge ruled against the school board partly because they, “had the shabby meanness to ask from [Mr. Williams] his contribution of tax, and [then turn around and] exclude his children from the benefit of the schools he helped to support.” Had the members of District 6 School Board had the sense to exempt the family from school taxes first, in order to exclude the children, as did the schools of the time in Connecticut, the court might well have ruled in their favor.The defendants in this case argued that one could look European (as did the Williams children) yet be a member of the Black “racial” group nonetheless. As it turned out, the judge did not agree with the argument and he did not impose a one-drop rule. But the case is still important because Williams v. School District, 1834 Ohio was the very first time that a one-drop rule was seriously argued in a U.S. court of law.Incredibly, this watershed case happened just three years after Gray v. Ohio, 1831, the robbery conviction case that opened this topic. Recall that in Gray v. Ohio, the state prosecutor allowed a convicted felon to go free rather than argue that the female robber was “really” Black due to her acknowledged trace of African ancestry.Nevertheless, although the change was abrupt, there would be no turning back. Just three years later, across the Ohio river in Kentucky, in Gentry v. McMinnis, 1835, a lawyer argued (again unsuccessfully) in favor of invisible Blackness.As presented in other topics, the ODR idea spread slowly southwards in the late antebellum period, then accelerated after the Civil War. Before long, trial courts would start to accept the notion, then appeals courts.Finally, the ODR became statutory in most of the nation in the early 20th century. But its earliest precursors, the first time that the unique idea of invisible Blackness appeared anywhere on earth was in the 1830s around the Ohio river.For the detailed text of this topic, complete with footnoted references, citations, and all the peer-reviewed material, visit The Invention of the One-Drop Rule in the 1830s North.

Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.

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